“Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” When St. Paul wrote this to the Romans, he was referring to what we know as the Old Testament. We, however, apply his words to the entire Bible, the inspired word of God, “written for our instruction.” Today we ponder the message of two of the Bible’s most important Advent teachers, the great prophet Isaiah and the even greater prophet John the Baptist. Prophets speak for God. By their words and actions they enlighten and encourage us. They also challenge and disturb us, for they force us to face the truth in our conscience.

Isaiah’s prophecy tells us something fascinating about the Lord for whose coming we are preparing. When he comes, the Messiah will reveal himself as both just and merciful; he will combine strength and compassion. On that day, the Lord will reconcile enemies and establish a wonderful harmony. He will justly punish the wicked and show mercy to the lowly and the poor. “He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.” (We pondered this famous prophecy last Tuesday.) The Psalm says of him, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” If we are well prepared, repentant, humble and honest, we will experience the Lord’s mercy; his coming will be an occasion of joyful celebration. If we remain fixed in our hypocrisy and self-centeredness, we have reason to fear his justice.

John the Baptist had a particularly powerful prophetic mission. When he began his public ministry as a preacher in the desert of Judea, he attracted great crowds from all over the region. He was so influential, in fact, that people thought he himself might be the Messiah. Like Isaiah, he too witnessed to both the mercy and the justice of God. To those who were humble enough to repent and be baptized, he gave hope of being prepared for the coming of the Lord. But to the hypocritical religious leaders, he addressed some very harsh words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from coming wrath?”.

These Pharisees and Sadducees were used to being shown signs of respect, and they probably expected honorable treatment from John. The symbolic washing he was offering seemed like the popular thing to do, so they lined up for baptism too – but without any intention of changing their hearts. They were like the celebrities of our own day who line up to be marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday, and who make sure someone snaps a photo of their show of holiness. John’s voice continues to pierce the conscience of everyone who claims to be pursuing holiness: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance!”

John is not being vindictive toward the Pharisees; he is being compassionate. He does not want the Messiah to arrive and find them unprepared. Like unfruitful trees, they are in danger of being cut down and thrown into the fire. John is well aware of the prophecy of Isaiah, who announced that when the Messiah comes, he will “strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” John’s urgent mission is to rescue them before it is too late, to show them how to receive God’s great mercy. This mission continues today as we ponder the Gospel, which warns us all to beware of the poison of hypocrisy. If our preparations for the coming of the Lord are merely for show, they make us less ready, not more.

The message of John – which is also the message of Advent for us today – is not one of fear but hope. All who turn to the Lord in faith can experience his merciful love. The only obstacle is sin, and God has already made it possible for us to be free of sin – not only symbolically as in the case of John’s baptism, but really, through the Sacrament of Baptism. Rejoicing in this gift, and continually renewing our commitment to live by it, we prepare for the Lord to dwell in us. When we fall, we can humble ourselves and return to him in Confession.

The grace we receive from the Lord makes it possible for us to live more harmoniously with each other. Perhaps on a natural level we are as opposed to one another as the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, and reconciliation is impossible for us. But nothing is impossible for God. When we start with the awareness of our own sin condition, and acknowledge that we are all struggling with the same basic weaknesses, we begin to be more accepting of one another, including those who are at different stages of repentance and transformation. When the Lord reigns in our midst, we are still cows and bears, lions and oxen, but we can reside together in peace.

In this way, we can “glorify God for his mercy.” By the power of his grace at work in us, we can “make straight” the paths of the Lord, serve him with an undivided heart, and witness to him with simplicity, authenticity, and love.

How am I a prophet to others by my words and actions? Do I approach the Lord in hope or in fear? What can I learn from Isaiah and John the Baptist about hypocrisy and self-centeredness?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.